Several leading male literary lights of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance were queer, but their Sapphic forerunner, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, is less well-known. Bisexual and of mixed race, she also crossed boundaries of literary genres. Dunbar-Nelson was born Alice Ruth Moore in 1875 in New Orleans. A precocious girl, she entered a teacher-training program at Straight College (now Dillard University) at age 15.
Teaching public school in her hometown, Dunbar-Nelson also exercised her writing talents. At age 20, she published Violets and Other Tales (1895), likely the first-ever short story collection by an African-American woman.
Shortly thereafter, Dunbar-Nelson joined the “great migration” of Southern blacks, settling first in Boston, and then in New York City. Her writing and photo in a literary magazine captured the attention of “Negro Poet Laureate” Paul Laurence Dunbar. In 1898, after corresponding for two years, they married. But the relationship proved stormy, exacerbated by Dunbar’s alcoholism and depression. In 1902, after he beat her nearly to death, she left him, and moved to Delaware.
Giving up teaching during her marriage, Dunbar-Nelson focused on writing, becoming known for her chronicles of Creole life in Louisiana. Her stories often addressed the social limitations placed on women, as well as issues of identity and crossing color lines. She was an increasingly vocal advocate for black empowerment and racial equality.
In Delaware, Dunbar-Nelson took a teaching job at all-black Howard High School in Wilmington, where she entered into a long same-sex relationship with its principal, Edwina Kruse. In 1910, Dunbar-Nelson married Henry Arthur Callis, a fellow teacher 12 years her junior, which lasted only about a year.
Dunbar-Nelson married her third husband, African-American journalist Robert Nelson, in 1916. He learned of her extramarital lesbian liaisons—including those with journalist Fay Jackson Robinson and artist Helene London—by reading her diary. Despite occasional fits of rage, however, he tolerated these affairs, and the marriage lasted until Dunbar-Nelson’s death.
In 1920, Dunbar-Nelson was fired from her teaching job because of her increasing political activism on issues ranging from women’s suffrage to antilynching laws to peace advocacy. Less inspired to write poetry as the years went on, she focused on journalism, coediting the Wilmington Advocate (a progressive black paper) with her husband, and penning popular newspaper columns.
Dunbar-Nelson’s circle included leading black activists such as W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune. During the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Dunbar-Nelson was friends with up-and-coming literary stars such as Langston Hughes.
After moving to Philadelphia, Dunbar-Nelson died of heart failure in 1935.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.